by Ava Diamond | April 1, 2017

Ava DiamondIn today's world, you are competing for attention. If your meetings are not generating extreme engagement, it might be time to refresh the way you design your events.

Too often, we see the traditional meeting format of keynote, breakout sessions and then networking events at night. The flow of information during the day is one-way, or two-way at best. The juiciest conversations often happen in the hallways.

Today's participants want more than this -- they want to actually participate! This means that they want to engage not only with the speakers but also with their peers in ways that promote a high-value exchange of ideas, and create new relationship and partnership opportunities. They want a say in what they will learn and who they will learn it from.

As you explore creating events where networking and relationship-building are key to your design, and multi-directional learning and user-generated content are delivered throughout the event, you might consider incorporating some of these less traditional formats into your meetings.

1. Rapid-Fire Learning
Instead of one speaker for a one-hour session, what if you had multiple speakers delivering short talks during that hour? For example, you might have five speakers that each had 10 minutes and were limited to 10 slides. They could present different perspectives on the same topic, or speak on different but intersecting topics.

2. Ignite-Style Talks
The tagline for Ignite says it all: "Enlighten us, but make it quick." Speakers get 5 minutes and create a presentation with 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. The presentations are fast, fun and focused. As the former emcee for Ignite Fort Collins in Colorado, I can attest to the fact that you can learn a lot in 5 minutes. Presenters find the format challenging and fun.

3. Rotating Discussion Table Topics
Create table topics for discussion. After 10 minutes, have people move to a new table with a different topic and a new group of people. Your participants learn from each other and build their networks. You can then have a facilitator guide a large group discussion or choose not to have that "roundup" of ideas.

4. TED-Style Talks
The short-talk model is perfect for today's shorter attention spans. The standard TED talk is 18 minutes, but TED-style talks can range anywhere from 5 to 18 minutes. Having delivered a 20-minute talk at the HR Summit in Singapore, I can tell you that it will force your speakers to have a laser-focused message that they can deliver in an engaging way.

5. Open-Mic Sessions
Many of us are familiar with this concept at coffeehouses and comedy clubs. Yet it's a great way to invite user-generated content that taps the expertise of the participants into our conferences. You can choose topics or themes, and allow people to sign up for slots to speak. The emcee chooses the speakers and facilitates the session.

6. Campfire Sessions
These informal sessions are reminiscent of sitting around the campfire sharing stories. Focused around a topic or question, the facilitator guides a discussion where participants share issues and develop solutions together. Creative, informal furniture setups add to the campfire feel.

7. Participative Panels
Why not tap into the expertise of your meeting participants in your panels? Here are a couple ways to do this.
• Empty-Seat Panel: Your panel includes an empty seat. Meeting participants can come up on stage and be a part of the panel and add their wisdom. This can rotate throughout the panel discussion.
• Fishbowls: Your panelists are seated in a circle, surrounded by a larger group of listeners arranged in an outer circle or concentric rings of chairs. Often there is an empty chair in the inner circle, which members of the outer circle can come in and occupy when they want to make a comment or ask a question.

8. Table Teams
To encourage relationship-building within your content sessions, you can have the table groups become teams. They choose a team name, a team symbol, a motto and work together at times throughout the day to integrate learning, engage in discussions and work on projects or case scenarios.

9. Knowledge Café/World Café
These formats are designed to access the knowledge and wisdom in the room. Small groups of four or five participants discuss an open-ended question or a problem that needs solving for a set period of time. At the end of that time, they move to another table. Often, notes and drawings are made on paper tablecloths. A table host can stay constant at each table to summarize insights from the previous group.

10. Open-Space Technology
Open Space is a self-organizing process that allows the participants to set the agenda and create and present the sessions within the stated purpose or theme of the meeting. The facilitator provides an initial briefing and guides the process of agenda development. The proposer/convener of each session provides a summary of the outcomes of the discussion.

11. Tech Engagement Tools
Having a panel at your meeting? Technology will let you crowdsource your questions from the audience, enable them to "like" questions being proposed and ensure that the questions that are being asked are the ones the participants care about the most. Technology also enables you to take quick polls and project the results, use hashtags and project a Twitter wall, and use technology to have participants "vote."

What do these 11 meeting-format possibilities have in common? They take courage, a willingness to move from "that's the way we've always done it," and many of them require some level of relinquishing control.

As you begin to integrate some of these less traditional designs into your meetings, you will engage your participants in new ways and deliver what they came for -- new ideas to help them solve their problems, and new connections to help them move forward.

Ava Diamond works with organizations to grow their leaders and their people so their teams can do the best work of their lives. She is committed to creating high-engagement experiences when she speaks at meetings and events.